by Mitsutoshi Oba, CUNY Graduate Center

Since Commodore Matthew C. Perry's 1853 expedition to Japan, which was to result in Japan's termination of its seclusion policy of over two centuries, Japan has been developing its distinctive relationship with the United States. In the decade after Japan's Samurai Regime ended in 1868, many Japanese people emigrated to the United States in search of economic opportunity. They were to take over railroad construction, mining, and other harsh and humble jobs previously occupied by Chinese laborers, who were excluded from the U.S. under the law of 1882. Around the turn of the century, the number of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. grew rapidly enough that they could create their own society, particularly on the West Coast. By the early twentieth century, these immigrants included some young artists and artists-to-be who would eventually associate themselves with the progressive art movements active in New York between the World Wars.

In her 1935 article “Japanese Painters in America,” Ruth Benjamin remarks: “Much has been written about the revelation of Japanese art to nineteenth century Western painters: Whistler, Degas, Manet, Monet and Mary Cassatt. But what of the Japanese artist of today who comes to America, lives among us, modifies our art, and is himself influenced by Western tradition? What is happening to him? Let us ignore the men who are so completely Americanized as to seem only weak imitators of our Academic school” (Parnassus 5, October 1935, p. 13).

As Benjamin indicates, numerous Japanese studied at “Academic” art schools in the U.S. in the early twentieth century. Among them were "weak imitators" of the Western style, as well as others who were instrumental in modifying the course of American art. In her Parnassus article, Benjamin discusses ten of the 27 progressive Japanese artists living in New York, who held a group exhibition at the American Contemporary Art Gallery in February 1935.

According to Masayuki Okabe, there were at least 65 Japanese artists officially associated with Japanese artists' groups in New York between 1922 and 1945 (Amerika ni Ikita Nikkeijin-Gakatachi: Kibo to Kuno no Hanseiki 1896-1945 [Japanese and Japanese American Painters in the United States: A Half Century of Hope and Suffering, 1896-1945], Tokyo, 1995, p. 18). Several other Japanese artists, whose association with those groups are unclear, are also known to have worked in New York in this period. “If we further add short-term visitors,” Okabe states, “we can assume that, at the peak, over one hundred [Japanese] artists were active in New York” (ibid.; my translation), excluding Japanese students at art schools such as the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. Among these Japanese expatriate artists in New York, only one figure has been remembered in the history of American art: Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953).

Kuniyoshi came to the United States in 1906 at the age of seventeen, without any intention of becoming an artist--indeed, of becoming anything in particular, but simply “expecting to pick [money] up practically from the streets” (Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “East to West,” Magazine of Art 33, February 1940, p. 72). In 1910, after unexpected hardships and equally an unexpected art education on the West Coast, Kuniyoshi moved to New York with his determination to be an artist, yet without any financial means. Doing “odd jobs here and there” in New York, he participated in an art class at the National Academy of Design, then at the Independent School, and eventually at the Art Students League in 1916. There his “life began to take on a real meaning.” Among his teachers at the League, “Kenneth Hayes Miller was very friendly toward" him and “changed [his] outlook on art” (ibid., p. 74).

After exhibiting his works at several modernist salons in New York, Kuniyoshi was given his first one-man show in 1922 by Charles Daniel, “whose gallery was devoted entirely to the younger men and who launched many an artist later famous” (Lloyd Goodrich, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, New York, 1948, p. 23). Kuniyoshi would indeed become famous enough to be included in the 1929 exhibition of “Nineteen Living Americans” held at the Museum of Modern art in New York (American Art of the 20's and 30's, New York, 1969, pp. 48-51). His retrospective exhibition was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1948. Four years later, he was selected as one of four American artists--together with Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, and Alexander Calder--to represent the United States at the International Biennale Exhibition at Venice (Ralph M. Person, The Modern Renaissance in American Art, New York, 1954, p. 93).

If New York had been the world's center of art half a century earlier, or if Japan's aggressive militarism had ended before its invasion of China, Toshi Shimizu (1887-1945) could have occupied Kuniyoshi's position in the history of American art. Like most young, Japanese art students of his age, Shimizu found Paris to be the ideal place to study art. As Toru Asano puts it: “his original plan was to go to the United States first, work and save some money, and then go to France to begin his studies” (Amerika ni Mananda Nihon no Gakatachi: Kuniyoshi, Shimizu, Ishigaki, Noda to Amerikan Shiin kaiga [Japanese Painters Who Studied in U.S.A. and the American Scene], Tokyo & Kyoto, 1982, p. 181). A number of Japanese artists who were not wealthy enough to study in Paris had actually made it to Paris by way of this American route since the turn of the century. Among them were six artists whose group exhibition was held at the Boston Art Club in 1900, when it was reviewed in The Boston Sunday Globe (“Amerikan Doriimu ni kaketa Nihonjin Gakatachi [Japanese Painters Who Ventured the American Dream]” Geijutsu Shincho 46, October 1995, pp. 41-2). Shimizu's “original plan,” however, was substantially modified by his seventeen-year stay in the United States from 1907 to 1924.

In 1919, after studying at the National Academy of Design and at the Art Student League, Shimizu began exhibiting at the Society of Independent Artists show. Two years later, his work exhibited at the 34th annual exhibition of “American Paintings and Sculpture” at the Art Institute of Chicago was given the Mr. and Mrs. Augustus S. Peabody Prize. This award was soon canceled because of his nationality. The incident brought his name into public recognition, and led to a one-man show at the Brummer Galleries in 1923. The next year, at the height of his success in New York, Shimizu embarked for Paris. In the same year, his American works were exhibited and welcomed at the Salon d’ Automne. In 1927, he returned to Japan where he was to work as one of the painters of war locales. These Japanese war painters were told to paint idealized and romanticized scenes of war rather than more realistic images (it is now a controversial issue whether those war painters should be considered war “victims” or “criminals”; see Osamu Tsukasa, Senso to Bijutsu [War and Art], Tokyo, 1992). Shimizu never returned to New York, and died in 1945.

Yet the paintings that Shimizu's fellow Japanese artists in New York vigorously executed for the sake of the American public as well as government were done in a thoroughly social-realist manner. While Kuniyoshi worked for the Graphic Division of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, Japanese artists such as Eitaro Ishigaki (1893-1958), Hideo Noda (1908-1939), and Takeo Terada (1908-1993) not only assisted on, but directed and created several murals for the Project. Other major artists such as Chuzo Tamotsu (1888-1975) and Bunpei Usui (1898-1994) are also known to have worked for the WPA/FAP.

Both Ishigaki and Noda were members of the communist John Reed Club. According to Helen A. Harrison: “Club artists Ben Shahn, Hideo Noda, Seymour Fogel, and Edward Larning were among [Diego] Rivera's assistants in New York, yet they were neither publicly censured nor expelled” (“John Reed Club Artists and the New Deal: Radical Responses to Roosevelt's 'Peaceful Revolution',” Prospects 5, 1980, p. 261). However, as Japan’s militarism became threatening to the U.S., Noda was actually “censured” because he was a second-generation Japanese American who had been educated in Japan in his youth (“Amerikan Doriimu ni kaketa Nihonjin Gakatachi,” p. 32). Leaving his house in Woodstock, New York, he died in Tokyo in 1939 at the age of thirty. Ishigaki was also punished for his Japanese connections. He was dismissed from the WPA/FAP in 1937 upon completion of his mural at the courthouse in Harlem. After his American life of forty years, he was arrested by the FBI in 1951 because of his Communist works and activities, and was deported.

Kuniyoshi’s success was in effect a reward for a number of creative Japanese artists, who struggled in New York between the World Wars. A series of recent exhibitions held in Japan have done a great deal to uncover these artists’ works and activities (for reference, see Amerika ni Ikita Nikkeijin-Gakatachi, pp. 22-3 and “Amerikan Doriimu ni Kaketa Nihonjin Gakatachi,” p. 59). Still needed are thorough research in American archives and in-depth analysis of these artists’ works, particularly in relation to American artists and movements of the period. Many of their images are complex and innovative enough to be compared with Kuniyoshi's best works.

[I appreciate Professor Marlene Park's encouragement to pursue this research as well as Professor William H. Gerdts' suggestion to investigate Japanese artists who associated with American art movements before World War I, which has given me an insight for future revision and expansion of the present topic; I also thank Robert Lancefield for his editing and Mr. Kazunori Asano of Nippon Television for making some materials available to me.]